23. September 2012
The Sunday of the Widow’s Son
And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
Back in the 60’s (and for the LCMS the 80’s—always late to the party) Coral Ridge Presbyterian Pastor D. James Kennedy made popular an outline or technique for evangelism. Everything revolved around two questions: 1) Have you reached the point in your spiritual life where you know for certain that if you were to die tonight you would go to heaven? and 2) If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into heaven,” how would you answer?
The point of these questions were to expose any thought that works could gain your entry into heaven. Rightly, this provided the opportunity for the interrogator to confess Jesus Christ’s blood as our merit and our entry into heaven for His sake. After the baby boom explosion of the 50’s, Pastor Kennedy was looking for a technique to continue the rapid expansion of Christianity. Unfortunately, the already decreasing birthrate and the rise of generic easy-believing Evangelicalism yielded no such growth.
There is no such thing as a magic bullet for sustainable church growth, despite what the multitude of gurus will tell you. True Christianity is marked by confession, discipline, faithfulness, persecution, and cross-bearing. It is sustained through unremarkable gifts of Word, preaching, forgiveness, water and Word washing, and body and blood under bread and wine. From a business or pragmatic perspective, we’re nuts. We’re committed to a cult that has little benefit and costs more than it seems to put out. Without a multitude of programs and other busyness, the cost of keeping these doors open is outrageous.
Yet, here we are, gathered at the feet of Jesus, listening with baited breath to His every Word, hungering and thirsting for righteousness or at least the crumbs of which fall from His table and into our mouths. It is outrageous that this would be enough and or would be worth the effort. That’s what your neighbors think. Why bother with the effort of Sunday morning when you can watch somebody more “uplifting” or at least with a better light show? Why put money into the plate when the whole enterprise is doomed to fail? Why commit your time and energy in service to the church and her ministry? What’s the point in the end?
That’s where Dr. Kennedy’s questions fail today. People don’t seem to care that much about heaven or dying. At best, they’re mildly curious. If there is even a god, why would he even ask if you’ve been bad or good in this life? Your friends and family are more concerned about their best life now and don’t even care if there is a life to come. In religious parlance, this theology is called annihilationism. They think: when you die, you go into the great abyss or are absorbed back into the one life force. No one has any personal value and is utterly disposable in the end.
The Holy Gospel gives us a glimpse draws our eyes away from magic bullets, programs, strategies, and revitalization onto the real work of Jesus’ own ministry and therefore the ministry here at Grace. First, from Jesus perspective everyone matters. No one is immaterial or unnecessary. He gives life purposely and generously. Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
Jesus goes to Nain in Galilee. Can anything good come out of Nazareth (of Galilee)? Nain, which means green pastures, never looked so from the Jerusalem side of the fence. Jesus had already healed the most unlikely of people, the Centurion’s servant. What’s he doing with Gentiles? Now, Here’s Jesus in Nain of all places visiting a widow with her dead son. Jesus fulfills the Psalmists word: The Lord protects foreigners and helps the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked. (Psalm 146:9)
Nain, full of heathens, is without likelihood of conversion, we think. They are ill-prepared, having a lack of moral compass, the right worldview, nor any of the Old Testament foundation. They are hardened by centuries of unbelief and are lazy slobs. Better to go into faithful Judea and enter her synagogues. They’re a hard-working bunch, with fat wallets and warm bodies.
No, not Jesus. He goes to the widow, cold in her sorrow with no one to support her in those final hours. Her husband has died and now her only son is lost to the abyss. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” The Lord did not think: “This is sooo typical for Nain. Deadbeat dads and grieving widows. When are they going to get their act together and take care of themselves? Why should I bother with this woman? She can’t financially support my mission trip and I bet she’ll take off the moment I give her a bit of good news. Better not waste my time on her.”
No, not Jesus. Compassion is that sinking feeling in the gut that compels us in love to mercy, care, and sympathy. Do not weep. The most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places during the most unlikely of events, a widow in Nain walking in funeral procession, is the recipient of Jesus’ compassion. Jesus ignores the demographics and the chances of success and does His Messiah thing.
Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Earlier Jesus said to Levi after He called him to be a disciple: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. (Luke 5:31-32) Here Dr. Kennedy was right. People are sick and they don’t know it. They need to learn how sick they are to appreciate the healing remedy Jesus has in mind.
The problem is that the people Jesus evangelizes aren’t merely sick. They’re dead. Like the young man in coffin dead. Being processed to the tomb, to be buried six feet under. Not just the man, but his mother is next to dead. Even the procession, the crowds following Jesus, and his very disciples. All walking dead. And thus, Jesus is always about forgiveness of sins leading to the resurrection of the body.
St. Paul says it this way: And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. (Colossians 2:13) And also: God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4)
The problem with evangelism programs, schemes, techniques, marketing, and the like is that it doesn’t take the state of people seriously. Everyone has intrinsic worth, for whom Jesus died (John 3:16). Jesus is relentless in His pursuit of you. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9). So, Jesus died for all. He does not consider any demographic, status, or even hardness of heart to stop evangelizing all.
Jesus evangelizes all relentlessly but recognize that he doesn’t approach them like a salesman would the potential customer. He’s not on a mission to convince you to believe in Him. Why not? Because you’re dead in trespasses. Dead people don’t listen. Dead people aren’t interested in a savior. Dead stay dead. Unless they’re called from the tomb by Jesus. Unless they hear Jesus’ voice calling out “Young man, I say to you, arise!”
Death and resurrection is what its all about. Knowing this frees us in the call to be evangelists. We can talk about the content, share in strategies, learn how to defend the Christian faith, and the like. In the end, we have not the ability to convince anyone to believe. Not through Dr. Kennedy’s two questions. Not with clever preaching. Not with generous charity. Not through works of mercy. Dead people don’t care.
Conversion requires is a miracle which comes only by the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just true for our efforts to witness to Jesus Christ crucified in our community and world, this is true for even our children and for you. Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
Holy Baptism is the time that Jesus said to you “Young man or woman, I say to you, arise!” Out of the grave of the font you arose to new life in Christ. That’s why all this Jesus stuff makes sense to you and not to the unbaptized multitude. They’re still dead, unable to love God or neighbor. How can you convince a dead person to believe? It’s not happening unless the Lord himself grants new life.
Therefore, you see that Jesus cares not about the who or the where of His evangelism program. Everyone is loved by him even while dead in their trespasses. God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) Even while we were dead, Christ loved us and sought to save us. And when? That’s immaterial, too. No one is innocent. All are equally condemned and need the full atonement of Christ’s blood. Jesus comes and touches the young child newly born and says “arise!” He touches the teenager’s bier and says “arise!” He calls out the middle-aged yuppie “arise!” He even says to the elderly man whose doubts overwhelm him “arise!” We cannot by our own reason or strength come out of the tomb or call Jesus Lord.
The beautiful thing about the death and resurrection methodology of Jesus is its all on Him from start to finish. When the Holy Spirit calls by the Gospel, enlightens hearts through preaching, absolution, baptism, and supper, Jesus works as promised. His Spirit calls, gathers, sanctifies by what seems most outrageous and too simple to ever work. He works through His means of salvation. Everything else is nice fluff.
You can package the Gospel anyway you like. You can learn the helpful techniques of the Christian apologist. You can learn about the worldview of the other religions. You can try being more casual or more formal with your church services. You can play music that sounds more appealing and less German. You can give hugs, shake hands, and be a friend. Its all been tried before.
In the end, nothing makes a dead-in-trespasses person become an alive-in-Christ person without Jesus himself preaching, forgiving, and calling out “Young man, I say to you, arise!” Its just what we confess: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. I believe that Jesus has done it all for me, has given me life and salvation by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and keeps me in this faith and communion through the Holy Christian church, which is Christ’s own body.
So here’s the Jesus Christ Evangelism Program: go and disciple all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teaching them of all things Jesus, forgiving their sins and eating together. That’s how dead people become alive people. That’s evangelism, the Jesus way.
Oh, and it does work, as outrageous as it might seem. When a dead man rises to life, here’s what happens: Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.” And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region. May the same report of your own resurrection travel from your lips throughout the whole region of Dyer and to the ends of the earth. God truly has visited and redeemed His people.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church